The Anti-Conformist Picture Book

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Mark Loewen is the author of an amazing new picture book, What Does a Princess Really Look Like?  In the book, he breaks gender stereotypes and features a family with two fathers. Please enjoy my Q & A with him:

-You hit a lot of powerful topics in this book. One take-away lesson is that princesses don’t simply “look pretty.” Being a princess also involves using your brain, as well as being courageous and strong. Do you think there is too much emphasis on appearance and playing up to feminine stereotypes in society?

Definitely. And it was always obvious to me. I think this was one of the male privilege aspects that I always saw, especially growing up in South America. But I really noticed how powerful this was when I observed how people related to my daughter. Strangers everywhere tell her how pretty she is – all the time. And I agree with them! But it makes me nervous that most people who talk to her when we are out say something about her looks. As she grows up, I want her to know that her looks are not the best or most important thing about her. It’s just one part of her.

I remember one time we went to the grocery store and she was wearing a superhero mask. A lady smiled at her and said, “I can see your beautiful eyes through that mask!” And I thought… even specifically dressing as someone strong and brave, people are commenting on her eyes. And this is all well-intentioned. But I don’t think boys get this message.

-What about in literature? 

Children’s literature plays into it because it sells. Even books or movies with strong females sometimes show that girls are “ditzy” or “clumsy.” I’m reminded of how Disney princesses like Anna and Moana both trip right at the end of a really big song. But I can’t think of male heroes portrayed in this way.

I’ve noticed that it’s becoming easier to find children’s books with strong female characters. Girl empowerment is big with publishers now, which is one reason why I found interest in my book so quick. What I do still notice is that books with strong female characters are still considered only for girls. But girls read books with strong male characters all the time. This needs to change. 

 -What does being a princess mean to you? 

That is a good question. We just recently visited Germany, where princesses were an actual part of history. I bought a bunch of kids’ books. Their children’s stories about princesses seem to be more accurate. They include the fact that princesses didn’t choose that life, and how they had to find their way and their identity with it. But also how they are responsible for the wellbeing of their people. To me, this is a deeper and more realistic meaning than just thinking about the “diva” attitude that we often think of nowadays when someone is called a princess.

-I love that you mention girls also need to have a voice, not only to say kind words but to speak up and stand up for yourself. Do you think young girls intrinsically know this?

Maybe intrinsically. Until I read Rachel Simmon’s book, “The curse of a good girl” I hadn’t realized how women have historically been put in the role of the peacekeepers. Both of my grandmothers were married to men with strong tempers. And both of them overcompensated by using humor, making their husbands look a little better.

I think the biggest gender inequality in our culture comes from unconscious gender bias. For example, in the case of bullying, we are still more likely to tell our sons to stand up for themselves, and our daughters to ignore the bully. This teaches girls to communicate indirectly. Passive-aggressive communication doesn’t work, and usually just leads to aggressive communication, which is then shut down. And girls don’t get to set their boundaries.

So I see both, parents teaching their daughters to be “nice” (passive) and to be very in-your-face (aggressive). Maybe it’s reflective of our polarized culture nowadays, especially in the US. I hope I’m able to raise my daughter to be assertive. but I think we have to be intentional about teaching this.

-Another theme you touch upon is about releasing the need to be perfect. This need for perfection is something I see in many children, no matter the gender. How can we teach children to be more accepting of themselves? 

Children see things in black-and-white or all-or-nothing terms. Being OK with imperfeciton is difficult for them to understand, just even from a developmental perspective. And in their experience, since they are constantly learning, there is always something they can improve on. When is it enough?

I’m a huge Rachel Simmons fan, who she writes about how we came from telling girls “you can be anything” to “you can be everything.” I hope that the book helps kids understand that, yes, we should aim at being smart, brave, determined, assertive, and kind. But we don’t have to be all those all the time, and we don’t have to do it perfectly to be good enough. And then also, our imperfections and our personal quirks are what makes each of us unique!

I think that’s a lifelong learning process, isn’t it? I’m still trying to learn that!

-In the book, Chloe has two fathers as parents. I appreciate this, since most books for children feature heterosexual relationships. Do you find non-heterosexual relationships lacking in children’s literature? Do you have any examples? 

Totally. It’s funny how anytime I say this, someone will respond with, “but there is this one, or that one!” Yes, there are a few. The problem with LGBT representation in children’s literature is that LGBT characters only show up in books that specifically focus on LGBT issues. From what we see in children’s books, LGBT people don’t have any other problems! Because once you take out the books that explain gay parents, sexual orientation, or gender, all families with two dads or two moms are basically gone from the literature.

I didn’t realize this until recently, because we had a ton of books about families with two dads. My daughter lost interest in them because at she became interested in reading about girls doing amazing things (instead of stories about parents). And going by those books, girs who do amazing things all those girls have a mom and a dad (or at least a mom). I believe that it’s incredibly important for children to see themselves represented in the media.

The other problem with the lack of gay parents in children’s literature is we miss the opportunity to expose children to diversity. My daughter went to a new school this year, and we answered quite a few questions from children about why and how our daughter had two dads. The kids were well-intentioned, and their parents were very supportive of us. But they had never seen a family with two dads, so they had to wrap their heads around it. They do this by asking questions and saying things that could make our daughter feel like there must be something wrong about her family.

It made a difference when I went to the classroom and read my book to the class. It helped for them to see the picture of the two dads with the girl, even though the character’s family structure is not the topic of the book at all.

(You can see this in the YouTube video:

There are so few books that show gay parents as a natural part of the story. The few I can think about are Rumplepimple, The Different Dragon, and the new release, Harriet Gets Carried Away.

-How did you find your publisher and how long did the process take? 

So the whole process was about 18 months. I sought out a lot of peer reviews and critique groups. Then I did a lot of research on the different ways to publish and decided on submitting to a few indie publishers. I also didn’t feel like submitting to traditional publishers and wait for years. As a new author, I had nothing specific about my career that would appeal to them. I also felt that I didn’t have enough knowledge to self-publish, and I wasn’t able to make that investment. The author community has strong views about indie publishers, because they have a hard time differentiating themselves from what is also called “vanity press.”  I wanted to get the book out there, but also wanted it to be done professionally. I submitted to a few indie publishers, and BQB Publishing responded quickly. Their deal sounded fair, and they were very supportive. They took care of all the behind the scenes work that goes into getting a book out. I am really grateful for them.

-If you give one piece of advice to writers, what would it be?

Don’t get discouraged when you compare your work in progress with the finished work out there. What you can’t see is how many drafts each of those books took before publishing. I remember when I went to my first critique group, one of the authors read a manuscript that was almost done. I thought it was such amazing work! My inner critic was quick to tell me I could never be that good. During the next few meetings, this same author brought some work that was still in progress and I was able to see how her first drafts were similar to mine. They just improved as she worked on them. That was incredibly motivating. I realized that I just needed to keep at it and not give up. So instead of just wanting to have a book out, or a finished product, enjoy the process. And just keep writing!

Love & Light,



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